Indigenous leaders call on Lakehead University to rescind appointment of interim law dean
Justice George Patrick Smith previously jailed six Indigenous leaders in conflict with a mining company
Indigenous leaders are calling on Lakehead University to rescind the appointment of Justice George Patrick Smith as the interim dean of its law school.
Smith was the judge who sent six leaders from Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug to prison a decade ago for protesting the activity of mining company Platinex on their traditional lands.
"It is somewhat of an insult to us that this judge who put our leadership in jail for defending their land is now the interim dean, after so much turmoil in the law school with respect to the departing of Angelique EagleWoman, who left on the basis of discrimination and racism," said Derek Fox, Deputy Grand Chief of the Nishnawbe Aski Nation.
EagleWoman, an Indigenous legal scholar, was widely reported to have been Canada's first Indigenous law dean when she was appointed to head the Bora Laskin Faculty of Law in May of 2016.
She announced her resignation Apr. 3, citing systemic racism as a cause of her departure.
"Were there other choices in selecting an interim dean?" Fox asked. "Could there have been someone else that would not have raised so much issues with our leadership?"
In a release regarding the appointment of Smith, Lakehead wrote that he "is recognized for his judicial expertise and understanding of Canadian Indigenous and Aboriginal issues."
It added, "He has longstanding connections and respect among local, provincial and national Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal legal communities. In addition, he is the author of important publications on Aboriginal and Indigenous Law in Canada for the judiciary and has decades of involvement in legal and judicial education on a variety of subjects."
But the chief of Kitchenuhmaykoosib Inninuwug, who was one of the six leaders jailed by Smith a decade ago, questioned his expertise.
"He's definitely not an expert in Aboriginal issues," Donny Morris said. "If he was, he would've given us the whole outright recognition of our inherent rights."
Morris has no personal ill will toward the judge, he told CBC — he publicly invited Smith for dinner in 2013, though he said the invitation was not accepted — but he said he wished the university had asked his thoughts before proceeding with the appointment.
"I would probably just let them know I don't agree with that," he said, adding he still has plenty of questions about Smith's perspective.
"Since he is going to be taking over part of our Indigenous Aboriginal law system in that facility, I would have questioned ... 'OK, where does he really stand on traditional rights? Inherent rights? ... How does he view it? How is he going to teach that Aboriginal law that is going through that system to our Aboriginal people? How is he going to phrase it to them? How is he going to approach them when I see from the other side he did me wrong by jailing me for believing what I believed in?'"
Fox, like Morris, said part of the problem with Lakehead's appointment was the lack of consultation that preceded it.
"It just sends a bad message when, first of all, we were under the impression that the university would work with their Indigenous partners in hiring an interim dean, and then they go and hire someone whose got a not-so-great track record with First Nations when it comes to our land rights."
NAN issued a news release Friday saying the University should have accepted recommendations made at a news conference last week that the university consult Indigenous partners on all new hires.
A spokesperson for Lakehead University said the university would not be offering a comment at this time while it reaches out to Indigenous leaders to discuss the situation.